I hold the theory that ideas are much more social than we think. When the time is ripe, they simply flourish in many minds at the same time. For example, one year ago, in this blog we published an entry discussing the possibility of a peer-review system on the ArXiv. Some hot debate ensued, and some people used very harsh language. But time was ripe, and people more influential than I have started a project, called epijournals. So far, the only source of information is Tim Gower’s blog and the comments on it. [Note added: it’s been pointed out to me that there is already an official link]

So, again, what is the problem? The problem is that basic research is funded, mainly, by public money. But the results of research are published in journals which are privately owned, and make a profit. Well, one might think that if it is a reasonable profit, and they add value to the publication, everything is fine. But the added value approaches zero asymptotically, and the profits are completely insane. Scientific journals get their stuff for free, since we scientists do not get any money for the articles. We do the research, typeset the articles, and make them camera ready. No charge. Also, we act as referees to judge the quality of other people’s papers, and very often also edit them. No charge! Yet, the journals are amazingly expensive. And sometimes they play harsh with the rights of the scientists to use their own work. E.g.: the dutch publisher Elsevier, which has become our bête noir, and against which we’re holding a boycott.

What value do the publishers give, anyway? Prestige. Their stamp of approval. If you publish an article in Nature, Physical Review Letters, or Cell, it means that it has gone through a careful selection process, it must be worth reading. But this revision process is done by… us scientists! And is done for free. So… if only the stamp matters, why not using it directly on the ArXiv?

The idea is simple: epijournals will work as regular journals, with editors and referees. The only difference will be that the journal webpage will not hold the articles themselves, only links to the ArXiv. So, you upload your paper to the ArXiv. Then, you write an email to the editor of your favourite epijournal, telling her your ArXiv number. She will send it to referees, make a decision and, if finally published, you’ll get a link in the epijournal webpage. Easy peasy.

As of now, it’s only mathematicians taking the step. It’s crucial that big guys send their papers to these epijournals, only then they will gather momentum and become prestigious. We, little people, need big publications to get tenure… so, please, please, if you have an important breakthrough in maths, consider submitting to one of them (when they start, of course).

What should the next step be? As of now, the “ranking of publications” is held by Thomson Reuters, a private company with a lot of power. For example, they compute (using a secret formula) the Libor and Euribor indices. They decide whether a journal is good enough or not to enter their Journal of Citation Reports, which charges the journals their revolutionary tax in order to stay in the list. Shouldn’t UNESCO take care of this task?

Other interesting issues related to epijournals:

  • Should we allow (signed) comments on the articles? I would like to.
  • Not only comments: I would love to chat with the authors of the papers I like. And, as an author, it would be so nice to chat with the readers. It will help reduce the feeling of irrelevance of theoretical work…
  • So, this would evolve in the direction of creating an on-line social network for scientists.
  • Is blind peer-review good enough? Why not double blind? (The referees do not know the authors either)
  • Make a two-stage refereeing system: a quick and dirty one, which would correspond to the current system, and another five years after publication, to assess what was the real impact.
  • About authorship: shouldn’t we allow for “partial” authorships? Or, more concretely: specifying what has everyone done in each paper. The current strategy of listing the authors in a certain “relevance order” is clearly not enough…

I hope more questions will come up in the comments… ;)


On physics, maths and tenure in Spain

The following dialogue, its situations, characters and institutions are completely fictional. Or almost.

Two researchers, in their late thirties, meet at the college cafeteria.

Sandy. Hey, Cris, you’re back from Spain! How did the selection process go?

Cris. Bad, the insiders got the tenure positions, but I knew it was going to be that way. You know  how my country is. My CV was much better than theirs, and my lecture was terrific… but there was nothing to do.

Sandy. Yeah, don’t think it’s much better here…

Cris. Well, I don’t know. They evaluated my CV “logarithmically”, if you catch my drift: for example, by multiplying your papers by 2 you earn one extra point. Then, the evaluation of the lecture is very subjective… and that’s what they use to select the inside candidates.

Sandy. Why would they do so?

Cris. It’s easy: because the professors in the department are completely clueless, they don’t want new professors which can overshadow them.

Sandy. Where was the position?

Cris. It was for the mathematics department of a school of building engineering. That’s one of the most stupid things we have in Spain: the hyperfragmentation of the university. You decide your major at 18, when you reach college, and you can’t change easily. In many cases, such as UPM in Madrid, there are as many mathematics departments as there are schools. Tiny departments which do almost no research, dominated by their feudal lords.

Sandy. Like a community college here.

Cris. Much worse! They can do research, just they choose not to. But you know what was the funniest part? The committee argued endlessly about my research in theoretical physics being inappropriate for an applied mathematics department.

Sandy. No way!

Cris. Yes! I challenged them to tell me what is the difference between theoretical physics and applied mathematics…

Sandy. What did they say?

Cris. What did they say!? They mumbled about the names of the journals I use to publish in! If the title contains “physics”, then it’s physics. If it contains “mathematics”, or  “geometry”, or “algebra”, then it’s mathematics.

Sandy. And what if it’s “Communications in mathematical physics”?

Cris. That’s too mind-boggling for them! One of the guys simply asked me: “can you tell me one of your papers which is really mathematical”? I answered: “what about the one I discussed about the Riemann hypothesis?”

Sandy. Hahaha! Yeah, I remember, your fighting with proving the Riemann hypothesis using quantum mechanics.

Cris. Yeah… they told me that my papers are physics-motivated, not mathematics motivated. So, that’s where I told them that that sentence made no sense. Of course, in kinder terms… I added that it was OK to talk about papers focusing on methodology and papers focusing on the solution of a certain problem.

Sandy. Yeah, that might do as a distinction between math and physics, doesn’t it?

Cris. No, it doesn’t! A lot of physics papers focus on the techniques or the formalism. But, even worse, applied mathematics should focus on problem solving, right? I mean, real life problems. Such as… physics! Then I got a bit pedantic, and told them that mathematics comes from “máthema”, which in Greek means “what we learn”, while physics comes from “physis”, which means “Nature”. And I told them: what can you learn about, other than Nature?

Sandy. Hahaha! That made them hate you, for sure.

Cris. You bet. I even cited Arnol’d, and the speech he gave in Paris in 1999, emphasizing the close nature of mathematics and physics.

Sandy. Yeah, I remember that. Arnol’d was amazing. He hated the Bourbaki spirit in mathematics. He said they had converted mathematics into a game, a purely logical game. All branches of mathematics are inspired in physics, right?

Cris. Right! Arithmetics comes from counting. Geometry and probability are very clearly physical. And calculus is an abstraction of the theory of motion.

Sandy. Exactly. A mathematician which considers herself to be “applied” should be someone who is able to apply all kinds of mathematical tools to real-life problems. And a theoretical physicist is usually good at that.

Cris. Also, they rejected immediately a candidate with a CV which was similar to mine, because her teaching had been in physics.

Sandy. Again, the same thing applies. In fact, the distance between teaching calculus and mechanics is the same as the distance between teaching mechanics and thermodynamics.

Cris. Absolutely.

Sandy. I assume they didn’t teach much advanced mathematics to those building engineers.

Cris. Of course they didn’t. In fact, their calculus didn’t contemplate Taylor’s theorem, their vector calculus stopped at double integrals, and their algebra didn’t include complex numbers. My god! The students never reach the e^{i\pi}= -1 level!!

Sandy. Hahaha! Yeah, I know that’s your pet peeve… You think the students only get their mathematical maturity when they understand that formula.

Cris. Of course I do! That’s the moment when they stop being little padawans and they receive their jedi sword!

Sandy. Yeah, you love beauty in mathematics.

Cris. You bet I do! In gave my lecture on eigenvalues and eigenvectors, and I produced some nice animations… But even more important, I started with the Fibonacci numbers.

Sandy. You did what!?

Animation presented by C during the lecture, showing orbits obtained when acting several times with a certain matrix.

Cris. I discussed how to get a closed formula for the n-th Fibonacci number by raising a matrix to a certain power.

Sandy. How can you do that?

Cris. I wish you had seen me! It was like making magic when you do it slowly… the golden section appears as an eigenvalue of the matrix which generates the Fibonacci numbers… it’s wonderful when you see why. Grab a napkin, I will tell you.

Sandy. Sure.

A personal dream: Journal of Physical Insight

Just a week after I published my post on the scientific publishing industry (#occupy_scientific_journals), the whole world seemed to explode. Tim Gowers started his personal crusade, and articles appeared even in mainstream media about how Elsevier and the strange world of scientific publishing. I was happy.

But complaining is not enough. I have had a dream for a long time: to create a scientific journal. A possible name would be “Journal of Physical Insight”, but others have been proposed by friends, such as “New Points of View in Physics”. Let me explain how it would look like.

Aim and scope. the journal would not aim at publishing original research. It would publish only original insight about known research. New ways of looking at old things. Conquering new territories is not more important than colonizing them.

Examples: revisiting old concepts using new tools, interesting conjectures, exposition of conceptual difficulties and possible ways out, more clever notations, unexpected connections between distant results… Do not misunderstand me, it would be a hard-core research journal, indexed in JCR. It would not be a teachers’ journal, although also teaching might be benefitted from it.

Publication style. I would like it to be a fully free journal, both for readers and authors. Authors would be required to typeset the paper carefully, in final form, check the references, etc. The editors would be volunteers, and they would be required to be young scientists, counting on the help of an advisory committee of senior scientists.

Special emphasis would be given to the writing style. The special aim of the journal suggests that editors and referees should encourage the authors to make a special effort to make concepts very clear. Also, evidently, to peruse the literature as deeply as possible, also outside your field: novel ideas in one field can be known concepts in another.

Peer-review process. That is one of the main novelties brought by the project. First of all, I want it to be double-blind, i.e.: the referees will not know the names of the authors or their affiliation. Also, I advocate for a two-stage peer-review process. The first one would be as quick as possible. Once the paper is published, its refereeing process would not be finished. It would start the second, community-driven process. Comments would be open for each article, and they would be collected for a reasonable amount of time, e.g. two years. It’s already time for scientific research to benefit from the 2.0 revolution! After that trial time, a second refereeing process would be carried out, to assess the impact of the work beyond its number of scitations. This second evaluation would be most beneficial to funding agencies, of course, because by then all scientists in the field would know the article.

Normally, the scientific edition procedure starts when the authors submit their finished work. Given its special scope, this journal would encourage authors to submit article proposals to the editors before embarking in the project, as it is done typically with review papers. The editorial board, if they consider the proposal interesting, will give support to the authors. This is a standard procedure in other areas, but not in science.

Of course, such a project will take a long time to bloom. It will require support from some scientific institution, although money is not an issue in this case: a few dedicated servers would be more than enough. Much more important is to convince a critical mass of colleagues, from all branches of physics, that this idea is worth trying.  Thus, I think time is ripe to ask for feedback… What are your thoughts?

(thanks to Silvia N. Santalla)


The main aim of this post is to propose a peer-review system on the ArXiv. We need a revolution in the scientific publication scheme.

1.- What is wrong?

Today I needed a scientific article for my research. My institution is not subscribed to the journal, but the publisher said “No problem, dude, just pay $33 and you can read the paper”. Seriously!?

Scientific publishing is a peculiar business model. Authors make no money from publication. Neither do referees. The typesetting of the articles is usually done by the authors themselves. Yet, the alleged cost per article is around $1.000-$10.000… Seriously!?

Work in fundamental science is usually paid by governmental funds, through taxes. And, even when the money comes from private hands, still their aim is to create knowledge and make it publicly available. But, as of now, the general public does not have free access to the results of the research they fund. Even professional scientists have frequent problems to obtain articles they need, thus making their research more difficult. This problem is getting worse with the economic crisis, and has always been a major issue in developing countries.

If authors do not make any money, why do they publish? For want of reputation and dissemination of their work. Funding agencies need some quality measurements in order to make decisions about which project to support. The accepted system, worldwide, is the number of publications and citations, and the prestige of the journals in which you publish. Journals are ranked by the JCR (journal citations report) index, which is itself… another private company (Thomson Reuters), which charges enormous amounts of money to universities and research institutes to pay for a faulty database.

Of course, some publishers are better than others. IOP and the DPG started New Journal of Physics, which is open. The problem is that publishing there is quite expensive. Other open journals can be found here.

2.- What do we want?

We want a cheap and open publication scheme. Most of the work is already done already by us.

We want a fair reputation system, which rewards high quality research, to serve as a guide for government agencies to direct their funding. And also as an internal guide to the relevant literature (too much to read, otherwise!)

3.- Ideas

The most promising point of departure is the ArXiv. It is free and open. It costs its maintainers (a board of worldwide research institutions) around $10 per article. Why not creating a peer-review system on the ArXiv? If authors so desire, they might ask for a “peer-review stamp” on their preprint. It wouldn’t be so difficult. A similar idea was already put forward by John Baez.

The peer-review process, as it stands today, is both too slow and too fast. It’s too slow because it takes months for a regular submission to see the light. By then, it is very often well known by the community, who had access to it through the ArXiv or otherwise. And it is also too fast because the referee process is not good enough to assess whether a paper will have impact or not. It takes time to know. So, why not making two “peer-review” processes? A quick-and-dirty one when the paper appears in the ArXiv. A second one, more detailed, after a few years, to evaluate its real importance.

Another nice idea would be to create an open discussion forum for each paper, where people might be able to make comments and ask questions. In the stack-exchange community style, reputation might be awarded for making questions and providing answers which the community approve. Of course, the forums need not be attached to papers only. The concept of paper as the “unit of research” may become outdated in such a structure. Papers were the natural medium for the exchange of information when the dead-tree technology was dominant… but, just like the mechanical loom, animal traction and congressmen, may be overthrown by history.

Neutrino jokes (and more)

To be honest, I do not expect much from all this neutrino fuss. I bet that, when the dust settles down, c will remain majestic in her velocity throne and forgive magnanimously our misgivings. Why? OK, first, because superluminal neutrinos would produce a vast amount of electron-positron pairs in their way (see this paper by Cohen and Glashow), which has never been observed.  But, more importantly, because, as Alvaro de Rújula once said, “You must bet so that losing becomes the most intersting option”. That’s what xkcd said, using different words:

But, in any case, the best offspin from this story are few nice neutrino jokes that have come to stay among us:


  • A neutrino. “Who’s there?” Knock-knock!
  • The bar-tender: “We don’t serve tachyons in here”. A neutrino comes into a bar.
  • A neutrino and a photon come into a bar. For the next 60 nanoseconds, the neutrino complains about how dark it is.
  • What does a neutrino do in an optical fiber? Honk the photons!
  • A neutrino boyfriend: interacts weakly, goes through you without you noticing and ends before you even started.
  • To reach the other side. Why did the neutrino cross the road?

And, profiting from the physics-jokes-revival, here you have two other physics jokes I didn’t know:

– Researchers from INFN have found traces of the elusive Berluschino, the supersymmetric partner of Berlusconi. As opposed to the original, it’s tall, honest and believes in democracy. Unfortunately, it is extremely short-lived in the current Italian political environment.

– Schrödinger’s cat comes into a bar. And doesn’t.

BONUS. I just invented three out of all those jokes. Can you tell which?

Life versus math

(Dedicated to Michele)

The main thesis of this article is the following: hiding from life is still living. In other words: you can choose your life (maybe), but you can not escape from life.

A good friend of mine uses to think that physics (the way he puts it, but I could also say maths, or hacking…) is opposed to life. I’ll start by supporting his argument, with a quotation from Joseph Weizenbaum (creator of ELIZA) talking about the MIT hackers:

…bright, young men of disheveled appearance, often with sunken glowing eyes, can be seen sitting at computer consoles, their arms tensed and waiting to fire their fingers, already poised to strike, at the buttons and keys on which their attention seems to be as riveted as a gambler’s on the rolling dice.  When not so transfixed, they often sit at tables strewn with computer printouts over which they pore like possessed students of a cabalistic text.  They work until they nearly drop, twenty, thirty hours at a time.  Their food, if they arrange it, is brought to them: coffee, Cokes, sandwiches.  If possible, they sleep on cots near the computer.  But only for a few hours—then back to the console or the printouts.  Their rumpled clothes, their unwashed and unshaven faces, and their uncombed hair all testify that they are oblivious to their bodies and to the world in which they move.  They exist, at least when so engaged, only through and for the computers.  These are computer bums, compulsive programmers.  They are an international phenomenon.

Joseph Weizenbaum, Computer power and human reason (1976)

There is a trend to think that hackers of any kind, let them be computer programmers, mathematicians, physicists… want to escape from reality, that’s why they create their small world in which they are almighty, their own Asgard, a world of purity. Some of them may even think that they’re escaping from life, but life can not be escaped. It is a natural trend within life!

Mathematics is not as pure as mathematicians think. Arnold used to explain that there is no such thing as good maths outside physics. Otherwise, it is just an intellectual game, and not a quite funny one. Physics is not so pure either, but that is easier to grasp after the Manhattan project. About the hackers Weizenbaum talked about… they thought they lived in a clean world there in the MIT AI lab, but it was funded by the US military…

The world is imprevisible and chaotic. Often, this is nice and fine. But sometimes, when you feel in pain, you’d like some cozy environment where you can hide from the stupid people outside. Maths, physics… can be such a place. Sometimes. Life has resources for everything…

Robots, ho!

May I introduce you to Paquito? Less shiny than C3PO and less obnoxious than R2D2… yet a great basketball player! Poor Paquito didn’t win the Galapabot’10 competition, which took place last weekend. For some strange reason, I was appointed judge in the event. In the pic, my face is strategically covered by one of Paquito’s gears.

So the game, organized by one of my little padawans (recently upgraded to young jedi), Irene by name, was basically to clean your ground half of balls, by dumping them to your opponents’ half.

In the pic you can see BEAST III in action, aka Terminator, it was really a great piece of work! As a remarkable side issue: you can see a girl driving a robot. There are geek girls in robotics!!  BEAST III was created and handled by a Swedish-non Swedish team. OK, I guess this last sentence needs explaining. The Svartmetall team came from the Intl. school of Stockholm, yet none of the members were Swedish! Also worth mentioning the other robots: Chucky, Franky, Smurf (made on the spot!) and BEAST 3.5.

The competition had an autonomous stage, where the robots had to act on their own, following their programs only. After that, the human drivers take control. I guess it is the first stage when you have the feeling that you have created something… The soul of Isaac Asimov was looking upon us, I am pretty sure.